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Jan 15, 2007

Bigger Than A String Bean


Okay, let's try this again.

Last week, I got a little carried away about a "gender assassination" piece in the NYT framing the new crop of Democratic Congressional males as  wanna-be muscle heads.

Then, not three days later, this WAPO piece popped up, titled: At Newsstands Everywhere, the Honorable Beach Babe From Illinois - link.  Like the NYT piece just before, Dana Milbank drenched this photo (of Obama on vacation) in another swift boat-style argument to convert Aquaman, here, into a girlie man.

Pull me under twice, shame on me.  This time, I'm not wasting a word on the echo chamber's amateur visio-sociopolitical punditry -- not when the picture is sitting right there.

As those who go swimming here understand, the clever wordsmiths can drape all the words they want around iconic images, but in every case, these images contain their own narratives that wash right over the pre-canned notions of the talking heads.

Considering Obama's public political profile, at least so far, I have a few thoughts about what's happening here between the picture and the view (as the old BAGnewsNotes tag line used to read).  As always, of course, I encourage your qualification, refinement and/or expansion.

1. More than a little boy face atop an elegant suit (or remarkably unremarkable casual wear), Obama in the flesh -- in what is obviously not a school kid's body -- suddenly (and thankfully) seems a lot less perfect or cute.

2.  Although the picture -- in his forward advance and facial expression -- still embodies Obama's perpetual intensity, it's a bit of a relief (and more rounding) to catch him so specifically off-duty.

3.  He's exiting the water, not walking on it.  Obama knows he's not going far stoking the fantasy he's a mythic gift from some elemental place.  At the same time, the coming ashore perpetuates the guessing game around a beach head landing in Campaign '08.

4.  Above all, this pic washes out the image of "Obama the string bean."  Shallow or not, his frame always seems a factor in the argument that, either by resumé or ideology, he's too lightweight.

(image: Fame Pictures.  January 9, 2007.  via


in what is obviously not a school kid's body

I disagree somewhat.
Absence of body hair, exuberant disposition, child's playground/paradise type of setting.

This image is the type of memory we recall from our own youth. Every scrapbook has a shot like this.

Definitely meant to make appear child-like.

It is a sexy picture, and Obama carries it off. According to the Milbank article, the picture was taken by papparazzi. So it isn't posed. No props. Just Barrack Obama unself-consciously walking out of the surf: He looks clean, healthy and normal.

I am struck by how clothes make the man--I mean, Obama seems very vulnerable here, very exposed, and yet, you're absolutely right that--without the suits--his heft seems more real. It's refreshing. And yes, also, lots of WW2 images come to mind--Normandy, the South Pacific. Douglas">">Douglas MacArthur: "I shall return".

I can't imagine GWB in a swimsuit shot. Ewwww.

I am noticing the different hues on his face and his chest. It was one of the biggest surprises of my sheltered and ignorant life to discover that dark skin tans just like lighter skin does. It is obvious that Mr. Barak spends more time in his clothes than out of them, which is probably a good thing, considering.

The picture has echoes of an iconic JFK shot, where he is emerging from the surf. Like the MacArthur shot, pictures of political figures coming off a vigorous swim have a mythical hero quality to them.

He don't look like no girlie man to this girl. Rowwwwrrr. I'm very partial to farmer tans, and he is sporting a nice one. Some people call them trucker tans, either way a nice reference to the working class. It's clear he's not on vacation all the time.

But sex appeal, talking here about men attracting women's votes and not the other way around, is very much overrated in politics, I believe. It's assumed that women vote for attractive men, I hear that all the time, but that has not worked out at all, really. Both Gore and Kerry were taller and handsomer than Bush, by far, and yet Bush (we are told) still won. A lot of women must be implicated in these "victories". I even know some of them.

The truth is, I have read, that women tend to vote the way others in their families do, specifically their votes match their husbands'. I think this is kind of a sad comment, but it seems to be the case. It appears that a lot of women have not taken the time or trouble to form political opinions and judgements of their own. If they don't vote differently based on issues which reflect their own self interest or that of their gender, why would they vote differently just because a candidate looks good in a swimsuit? Is it assumed that men make political decisions on this venal level? (I just got a visual of Marge Thatcher in a bikini. Owwww--I'm blind, I'm blind!)

No, of course not. I hear about "the women's vote" all the time like it's some monolithic block. It isn't. Not at all. The women's vote is bedeviled by all the same issues that the men's vote is--class, education level, "positive perceptions" such as the one we're discussing, religion, etc. Sex appeal plays only a very small part.

Of course, it's been said that Dick Cheney couldn't make a direct run for president because he's a fat and rather unattractive old man, and this would work against him. This didn't seem to hurt Ariel Sharon, though. Maybe in American politics there's some vaguely defined photogenic standard below which a presidential candidate must not sink.

I don't know, I still think discussions of Gore's "handsome but stiff" good looks, Kerry's "sex appeal" to women, and Obama in a swimsuit are all overstating the role which attractiveness plays in getting the women's vote. And I think the notion that women vote for good looks is not a little sexist, if I do say so myself. It assumes that women are superficial and rather stupid.

Time for me to go read by Hamlet again: "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?"

Let's hope the course of the country is set to calmer waters.

The Gods have sent him to earth to save what ever is left to be saved. He emerges from the depths of the life-producing waters with the purpose of setting things straight. I bet he talks with the whales and dolphins...

i think the obvious is also the
strongest message-he's a nice-looking
normal guy who keeps in shape but is
getting older. natural- not one of those old creeps in spandex.

tina; "discussions of Gore's "handsome but stiff" good looks, Kerry's "sex appeal" to women, and Obama in a swimsuit are all overstating the role which attractiveness plays in getting the women's vote."

All the research on attractiveness suggests that attractive people have an advantage not shared by the less attractive: we attribute all the virtues to them, think they are smarter, kinder, more honest, harder-working, warmer, more pleasant to be around. We protect them more when they are infants, prefer to be around them when adults, promote them more, pay them more. Our evaluations of attractiveness occur automatically, unintentionally, our of consciousness and quickly.

Why would you possibly imagine that attractiveness isn't also an important aspect of political success? It is true for men AND women. People won't vote for just a pretty face, but a pretty face WITH an appealing political platform.... Why do you suppose politicians spend so much time getting their hair right?

How many times in these threads have we discussed George Bush's manly manliness, the harem of women he surrounds himself with. In conservative circles, he is considered a very attractive man, a stud muffin even--maybe not to you, certainly not to me--but to many. His frat boy, bad boy manner? Again, not to you, not to me, but it appeals to many. Tell me this">">this guy isn't cute! Cuter than Gore, cuter than Kerry.

Clinton's sex appeal was a problem for him. Kennedy was nothing if not studly. Ronald Reagan was an old geezer by the time he got to the WH, but he had the voice of an enchanter and a Hollywood leading man's resume.

Obama has an interesting problem in the attractiveness realm. He has to be attractive, but very, very careful not to activate those lecherous black male stereotypes that brought down Harold Ford in Tennessee. That's one of the things that is so nice about this picture--Obama is in Hawaii, where he grew up, he's clean, wholesome, just having fun.

Shouldn't we see pictures of Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott in swimming trunks? Is it good to be physically repulsive if you are a male politician?

Remember the "Breck Girl" meme with Edwards in 2004?

At first, I thought the photo analysis was interesting, that got old real fast.

Now it is just inane and stupid - come on - do you really think that anything in this post represents a meaningful dialog?

Give me a break - post bathing beauties at the beach if you must.

Guess we should just be grateful it wasn't libby dole...

Maybe a subliminal message intended? He "looks like" one of the Haitians who climb out of the water on Florida's East coast after being shipwrecked; in other words, an illegal"immigrant." Conjures up his Father's origins as an immigrant, plus the exotic name.

Just be grateful. If it were "in" (i.e. non-gayish) for men to be photographed on the beach in big ole hetero shorts, Dana Mil-rank would be the first press whore outta the bathhouse (poor choice of nouns, nah!). As we know, the clever, smirking hack can fill a TV screen to capacity. Also who wants to be blinded by the white?

I don't know that the photo should shift my judgment of Obama any, but the photographer, on the other hand, deserves whatever further employment he can get. Nice composition, color contrast, framing of subject, etc.

I'm no expert in photography, but it also struck me as a nice composition - the water spraying up in the foregound and the breaking waves in the background, with the blue sea.

The French Presidential campaign has had a photo of Segolene Royal in a bikini at the beach, which she claimed to be upset about. And then not long after, there were photos of he opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a bathing suit at the beach, too, I think. (Where's Monsieur Gonzo?) Is this a new trend?

I don't know that this photo is any big plus or minus for Obama, but I am glad that he's in a plain old bathing suit and not spandex.

I'm thinking of any racial stereotypes that might come into play here, but really, he just seems like a normal guy in this photo. I don't think that can hurt him any, and it might help. Although there is that stereotype that blacks can't or don't like to swim; I guess he's showing that that doesn't apply to him...

Since we entered the TV age, a political candidate certainly has an advantage is he or she is attractive. On the other hand, looking too much like a model or an actor can be a disadvantage - for example, John Edwards (and maybe Obama, too?) has to work at seeming more serious since he's young and nice-looking.

Did anyone notice the scar on his belly? not that it could portend some importance.

I think of the balance of feminine and masculine perspectives.

Barak is not quite Venus on the half shell, but diving into the sea is a primeval invitation to mystery and the the feminine and usually a man is better for it, even if it is just for the health.

I like how it humanizes him, and through his body mass it shows his age, which may weaken his persona of charm, but may give him the impression of content and experience.

Okay, he's evidently self-aware. He must be, as he knows there are always cameras lurking. And yet, something about this particular shot makes me wonder if he is just a man at the beach at this moment?

It is not in my nature to ever trust politicians, but i fail to see what the NYT is attempting to demonstrate on this one. Does he lack sufficient stomach muscles or something?

As far as photos go, i hasten to say that there is hardly anything political about this, despite whatever intentions may burble beneath the surface. Nothing to interpret.

PTate, I think the attractiveness studies were overblown in the media. There are any number of examples of successful but very unattractive politicians--how ugly is Hastert anyway?

Madelaine Albright would not be called beautiful by anybody but is very respected and successful. Angela Merkel is also a pretty homely woman but she has reached the top of Germany's power structure. We've already discussed how Pelosi is rather unphotogenic; she's also 67, which factors into it. The list goes on, Golda Meir for example....

Naomi Campbell, on the other hand, is very beautiful and I have never heard anybody say anything positive about her. She by all accounts is spiteful, catty, and rude. I can think of several women sufficiently attractive to have made a living from their looks that people do not consider, "warmer", "nicer" or "more intelligent". In fact we often make jokes about how bitchy or stupid beautiful women are thought to be(Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson).

As for men, think about a certain vice president we had, a blonde fella with boyish good looks whose name became a byword for being, shall we say, none too bright, even though he said none of the idiotic things Bush has said. He was also perceived to be weak and henpecked because he had an older wife. Dan Quayle was never helped by his looks, and he wasn't that incredibly dumb, either, he just wasn't national-level political material, really, and it showed, and he didn't have a family like George Bush's, rich enough to push him through anyway.

The beauty thing is at the very least a two-edged sword, and I think it is much overrated by a media that prefers it. The truth is, if you are gorgeous but don't have the talent and the intelligence you need, you are only going to go as far as your looks will take you, and then live in continual fear of losing them.

So I think the whole attractiveness thing is a media non-story. At the very least the studies have been taken to mean things they weren't intended to.

Women might be able to fake orgasms...

...But men can fake whole relationships.”

-Sharon Stone

Regardless of the form, baptism is usually a public rite, in testimony to others of the grace of God bestowed upon the person, and as a seal of God's promises... to those who believe.”

I too noticed the difference in shades between his (sun-exposed) face and arms, and his (usually-hidden) torso. And it made me remember that he's born of an African father, and a caucasian mother from Kansas. And, like Tiger Woods, most of the descriptions of Obama mention that he's black, or African-American, while he's just as much caucasian (Asian in Tiger Woods case). Not sure what I think of that.

Maybe it's just a majority/minority dynamic, as children of, say, caucasian fathers and Vietnamese mothers (living in Vietnam) have the minority aspect of their ethnicity stressed by society. Wonder if children of a black African and a white european (living in Africa) have their whiteness stressed...

Luci--the answer to that is YES. Very much so.

tina--"I think the attractiveness studies were overblown in the media."

You may never seen this comment, because the thread is quite old. However, my comments were based on reading the original research studies, not on the media interpretation of them (I cough modestly.)

In all matters psychological, nothing is 100%: The fact that you can think of examples that are not consistent with the general finding does not disprove the general finding. You have just thought of some exceptions.

We all do this kind of reasoning, of course, it's human. We are easily impressed by single vivid examples that can be brought readily to mind (AKA the availability heuristic)--this is why the work that the Bag does on this blog is so important. Visual images are powerful, and often we aren't aware of what we are seeing even as it influences how we reason, judge and remember. The key to avoiding this fundamental reasoning error is keeping base rates in mind....well, and reading and reflecting on BAGnewsNotes!

In this conversation, the other thing we both need to do is to define attractiveness. Attractiveness is more than physical features--it is also carriage, voice & speech patterns, grooming, posture, weight. What is attractive in a politician is not going to be exactly the same as, say, Hollywood star, model or rock star standards. Communicating leadership is important for policiticians (competence, intelligence, authority & confidence as well as being trustworthy and "similar to me.") Being youthful is less important, for obvious reasons. But having the right height, weight, gleam of health & vitality, regular features--cues of attractiveness--is an important aspect of this.

Take Angela Merkel, for example. She is actually a very pretty woman, however, she is middle-aged and distinquished, rather than femme.

The phenomena you need to explain is why every politician under the sun (and news anchors as well) have that hair thing going. On the other hand, I totally agree that attractiveness is not the only thing that influences our choices.

I think that what's true in the U.S is not necessarily the case in other countries. In the UK, there are some women politicians who reached high positions, but probably wouldn't be considered "babes".

This is obvious in the media. If you compare news readers and journalists on the BBC with those on CNN, for example, the ones on CNN are more glamorous and movie-star like. The BBC news readers aren't unattractive, but their clothes, hair, makeup and demeanor are less flashy, I guess. As for the reporters in the field, some of them aren't particularly attractive, and some are older and actually allow themselves to look older. In the U.S., there's a generation of women in the news business who are in their 60s, but those years of experience aren't enough; they also have to look decades younger than they are (Barbara Walters, Lesley Stahl, Andrea Mitchell, Candy Crowley, Judy Woodruff, Diane Sawyer, etc.).

ummabdulla:"I think that what's true in the U.S is not necessarily the case in other countries. In the UK, there are some women politicians who reached high positions, but probably wouldn't be considered "babes"."

The preference for attractiveness seems to be universal so it seems to have a biological basis--across cultures, babies as young as two months will spend more time gazing at a more attractive face.

But, obviously, there is a huge cultural component to what is considered attractive. The USA is without a doubt one of the worst in terms of artifice for women--weird standards for age, makeup & weight.

I have to tell you... coming from someone who spent youth as a professional dancer.... you can tell a lot about what a person does by the shape and muscle tone of their bodies. If the person has a giggley bootie - they sit for a living. But, if they have some arm muscles they may pick things up in their sitting jobs... like someone in the mail room. Look at a person's hands - if it is a man with perfect nails they do very little without help. Politicians must spend eons in chairs. And Obama is no exception.... except he still has some stomach muscles and his triceps have delineation.... he gets up from his chair and does stuff. This is a plus.

This is stupid, the guy is taking a dip in the ocean. He looks invigorated. Mother ocean has a way of doing that. Guaranteed this carries through his day. All the best to Obama.

He's from hawaii. He's taking a swim. I do that too. Big deal? No.

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